Sharks have always been my absolute favorite animal. There’s just something about them that’s always inspired a sense of childish wonder in me. Maybe it’s the beauty and the graceful swagger with which they dart through the waters. Maybe it’s their raw power and predatory capabilities which causes awe.
Whatever the reason, my first encounter with a shark happened while on a week-long dive expedition in the Bahamas. I was on a 30-foot sailing sloop, which would take us around several of the offshore sites and islands in the Exumas keys. The lure of both diving and sailing was too powerful for me, at a time when I was a corporate lawyer working for a large company in northern Mexico. I’d just begun to take travel seriously and this would be my first true adventure. Excitement and adrenaline rushes galore awaited!
The only problem was that I wasn’t aware of just how much excitement and adrenaline there was in store for me.
After a couple of dives during the first few days, I was hooked. I swam amongst massive coral reefs, where all sorts of fish and wildlife abounded. Even though it was November, the waters of the Caribbean were warm and pristine. I saw crabs and lobsters, sea fans and sea slugs, turtles and eels, and just about everything in between.
Little did I know that, only a few days later, I would have my first encounter of the shark kind.
It happened off the shores of Eleuthera, which is both an island and an archipelago of smaller keys and islands to the east of Nassau. I’d buddied up with an Englishman called Keith, middle-aged banking techie based out of London with an avid interest in underwater photography. He always brought his massive dive camera along. It looked like something out of a National Geographic documentary, bulky and expensive piece of equipment that it was.
Since I was the expedition’s youngest and least experienced member, I always took a little more time to prepare and get into my dive hear, but since Keith took so long to prepare his camera, we were a good match. We always took our time. Never rushed into the water, though I was always dying to take the plunge into the marvelous Bahamian deep. Needless to say, we were always the last ones in the water.
Nevertheless, once we did take that big step off the side of the ship and into the water, we were free to roam wherever the will of fancy or whim took us. The entire ocean (within a reasonable distance of the boat, of course) was our very own underwater steppe. The sea was our to roam and explore, and we’d drift over the wide open underwater expanse with excitement pumping through us as we looked around the reef for the next beautiful thing to see (and photograph). I’d peek into all sorts of nooks and crannies, seeking the hidden wonders of the ocean. We’d follow and observe all sorts of fish. Swim out of the way of a stingray that transited from one end of a reef to the other.
Until, once we were distracted by a sea turtle we’d just seen. And when I looked up, my heart immediately jumped into my throat and I felt a shiver run through the entire length of me.
There in front of me, not more than a few meters away, was the lithe gray mass of a 3-meter long Caribbean reef shark. The first one I’d ever seen.
Its dark yellow eyes observed us with a look of animalistic intelligence. I could tell it was analyzing us, scanning us for information so that he could understand what we were. He swaggered through the water like a hooligan at the bar. A shark is clearly not someone you want to pick a fight with, much less in his own underwater turf, in which it seemed we were intruding. Some species of sharks, including Caribbean reef sharks, are extremely territorial and not afraid to show it. I felt vulnerable, exposed.
I imagine that the thrill of finding yourself face-to-face with a shark stems from that moment when you realize that the shark has all the capacity to hurt you. Bad. When you see those rows of shark, serrated teeth, your heart rate begins to climb. Symptoms might include that you feel that, suddenly, the regulator isn’t feeding you as much air as before.
It’s a truly unique experience to witness nature’s perfect predators unrestricted. Wild, dangerous, and in his watery own.
When I saw that shark circling around us, I immediately swam over to Keith, who had been distractedly taking a picture of some shrimp or spider crab between a couple of corals for the last few minutes. I had to warn him. So I clapped him on the shoulder, pointing at the shark not more than a few meters away. If we’d been on land, I’m sure I would’ve jumped on him in my amateurish panic.
He turned, giving me a look of resented annoyance, as if asking why he’d been torn from his microphotography. He then looked at the shark. I could see his eyes taking in the sight of it, studying it with an experienced eye (he’d boasted on the boat that he’d stopped logging his dives after hitting the two hundredth mark) before simply shrugging his shoulders dismissively.
Keith then simply gestured at me to follow him as we began leaving the area, which the shark apparently considered his hunting territory. The shark’s fins moved up and down, a gesture that they do when they get territorial. You didn’t need to speak shark to know that we were intruding on what he considered his own private backyard.
We left and the shark went back to prowling the reef like some sort of lone sea wolf. Nothing came from that first encounter but the thrill of having seen the ocean’s apex predator with my own eyes and the realization that these were highly misunderstood and beautiful creatures. Try as I may, I couldn’t shake the powerful majesty of the animal I’d just seen, nature’s magnificence reflected by such a masterpiece.
Have you ever come face to face with a shark? How did you feel? Let us know in the comments!